UK nurses’ union launches largest ever strike

Healthcare professionals walked off the job at facilities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to protest years of subpar pay

©  Getty Images / Andy Barton

More than 100,000 nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland walked off the job on Thursday in the largest strike in the 106-year history of their union, the Royal College of Nursing.

According to Sky News, about a quarter of hospitals and community teams in England, all trusts in Northern Ireland, and all but one health board in Wales are taking part in the industrial action, which is scheduled to continue on Tuesday.

British nurses have reached a “crisis point,” leaving them no choice but to strike, RCN committee chair Denise Kelly told Sky. Citing “years of real-terms pay cuts,” a multi-year public-sector pay freeze, and the runaway cost of living, the nurses are demanding a 19% pay rise – the inflation rate plus five points. 

The government has offered a pay increase of just 4.5% for most nurses, with those at the lower end of the pay scale receiving up to 9%. A spokesman for PM Rishi Sunak called the offer “fair and reasonable” on Thursday, pointing out that nurses had gotten a 3% bump last year. 

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Beyond financial woes, many nurses argue that patients’ safety is being put at risk. A community matron at London’s St. Thomas Hospital told Sky that “nurses are burnt out” to the point that it endangers patients, with facilities so understaffed that “one nurse is doing the work of three.”

A practice development nurse picketing outside Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge claimed that since Covid-19, “the workload has doubled” and “patients are coming through a lot sicker” – with no extra staffing to reflect the change. Others cited tens of thousands of vacancies with no one to fill them. 

Patients’ advocacy group the Patients’ Association has expressed solidarity with the nurses. CEO Rachel Power begged the government to “get round the table with the RCN and find a solution to this” during this “scary time.

Despite growing pressure from the public and even from within the Conservative Party, however, 10 Downing Street has insisted there are “no plans” to reconsider nurses’ pay packages. Health Secretary Maria Caulfield has argued that every 1% extra in pay increase would cost the public £700 million ($853.25 million), and trying to match inflation would just make the problem worse.

Meanwhile, Sunak warned earlier this week that he is prepared to introduce “tough new strike laws” to prevent further disruption to the UK economy. Transit workers, the Royal Mail, highways staff, and other British unions are all set to strike in coming weeks.


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